Will Berlusconi Be Bunga'd Up At Last?

Berlusconi is a symbol of everything that was wrong with Italy in the past and, to a great extent, today. Many laws, rules and regulations aren't clear, and ordinary Italians often circumvent them with help from a friend -- or a little cash.

At the age of 76, Silvio Berlusconi remains God's gift to journalists.

Italy's former prime minister was due tomeet today with incumbent Enrico Letta to discuss their fragile coalition government's plans for tax cuts. No doubt Berlusconi's conviction June 24 on charges of paying an underage prostitute for sex, for which he was given a seven-year prison sentence, will come up, too.

Berlusconi's sentencing has provided Italy's newspapers with an opportunity to lap up ever-more-salacious details about the infamous "bunga bunga" parties he used to throw, where girls were provided for what appear to have been modern-day reruns of imperial Roman orgies. What it all means for Italy is less clear.

The pictures of Karima El Mahroug, the Moroccan-born prostitute also known as Ruby Heart-Stealer, are being shown ad nauseam. A court in Milan convicted Berlusconi of having sex with El Mahroug when she was 17 years old. Had she been 18 at the time, there would have been no crime. Had she been 17 but agreed to sex without payment, there would also have been no crime. It was the confluence of her age and the payment that tripped Il Cavaliere.

Berlusconi was also convicted of abuse of office: When El Mahroug was arrested for theft in 2010, he called the chief of police in Milan and asked for her release. The reason he gave was that he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident, because El Mahroug was related to Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak. She wasn't.

Berlusconi denies having had sex with Ruby Heart-Stealer, and so does she. She says the money he gave her was to start a business. The court didn't believe them. Berlusconi says that he genuinely believed Mahroug was related to Mubarak, although that wouldn't have made legal her release into the care of Nicole Minetti. Minetti -- one of Berlusconi's former lovers, whom he named a member of the powerful Lombardy regional council -- is currently on trial for allegedly procuring prostitutes for him.

By any standard, this is sleazy stuff. Yet it was all well-known before the latest elections in February, when 9.9 million Italians voted for Berlusconi, perhaps because he embodies a fantasy -- to be rich, powerful and devil-may-care. And despite the guilty verdict, Berlusconi is unlikely to be punished.

Berlusconi will appeal, and if he is still found guilty, he can appeal again. That process could take five years, and only if he fails on the second attempt will the sentence -- which includes a ban on holding public office -- be applied. In Italy, it is rare for anyone over 70 to go to prison.

Berlusconi is also very unlikely to go to jail in the Mediaset SpA case, in which he was convicted in May of fraud and tax evasion. Lacking sex appeal, this prosecution has drawn less international attention but is probably more serious. Mediaset is Berlusconi's multi-billion-euro media company. He was sentenced to four years in jail and given a five-year ban on holding public office in the case, which concerns the purchase of U.S. film and television rights. On May 8, he lost the first appeal. The second and final appeal must happen by next July or the case will expire due to a statute of limitations.

It is hard to predict how all of this will affect Italy's ruling coalition. If Berlusconi's conviction is finally upheld, then the Senate, in which Berlusconi sits, will have to vote to confirm his ban from office. The vote would be secret, so it is possible Berlusconi may threaten to bring down the government unless Letta instructs his Democratic Party senators to vote against the ban.

In the meantime, Beppe Grillo, founder of the maverick Five Star Movement, the largest party in Italy's Parliament, is seeking to uphold a 1953 law that prevents anyone who has a concession from the state -- such as a broadcasting license, which Berlusconi has -- from holding public office. Indeed, had the law been enforced in the first place, Berlusconi could never have been a politician and a media mogul at the same time.

According to James Walston, a specialist in Italian politics, if Grillo succeeds in having this long-ignored law applied, then Letta and his party "will be forced to chose between consistency (they have accepted Berlusconi for 20 years) and legality and political expediency (they cannot be seen to be outflanked by Grillo)."

Berlusconi is a symbol of everything that was wrong with Italy in the past and, to a great extent, today. Many laws, rules and regulations aren't clear, and ordinary Italians often circumvent them with help from a friend -- or a little cash. This isn't what many Italians would consider fraud, but ordinary life. It shouldn't be so, of course, but it is, and Berlusconi is the tip of the iceberg: The entire system is at fault.

I am writing this from just across the Adriatic Sea. Here in Montenegro, the Italian system is something of an aspiration for some leaders because it represents a European Union in which you can have your cake of corruption and eat it, too. Clean up Italy and this will have an impact elsewhere, including Montenegro and its neighbor Albania, where elections on June 23 may have produced a new prime minister to replace Sali Berisha, who has been in and out of power for even longer than Berlusconi.

It is worth mentioning Edi Rama, Berisha's likely replacement, because what he said to me in an interview about Albania applies just as much to Italy. The problem with his country, said Rama, is that the system is corrupt, and that makes people corrupt. "If you put Albanian civil servants in Germany, they will not be corrupt because there is no space for it," he said. "If you bring Germans here, after a few months, they would be."

Italians will never be Germans, of course, but without the likes of Berlusconi in public life, it would make the Herculean task of purging the system a lot easier.

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Tim Judah at timjuday@gmail.com

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

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